An ode to NATO’s mission in Libya

TOPPLING QADDAFI: — Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention: Christopher S. Chivvis; Cambridge University Press India Pvt. Ltd., 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

On October 20, 2011, a low-resolution video shot in Sirte, Libya went viral. It showed a motley mob of about 20 mutineers shouting what sounded like insults at a 69-year-old Bedouin — their prized ‘catch’. The old man’s face was bloodied; he looked dumbfounded and was perhaps making an attempt to beg for mercy. Moments later, the aged captive was dead, his body used as a trophy.

The old, khaki-clad Bedouin was Muammar al-Qaddafi. Though both his life and his 42-year rule in Libya were marked by eccentricity, his death could not but evoke empathy. NATO’s mission creep — a spin-off from the powers granted to it by U.N. resolution 1973 — was complete.

Toppling Qaddafi by Christopher S. Chivvis — who was with Pentagon at that time and currently works for the U.S.-government-funded think tank RAND Corporation — is an ode to the intervention. Though it does express scepticism in a few chapters, its overall tone is one of approval and, at places, celebration. Long on technical details and short on depth, it reads more like a military template for future interventions than a genuine soul-searching effort.

Chivvis puts on the back-burner an honest attempt at understanding the uprising while expecting the reader to genuflect to the restraint practised by the U.S. as it decided to step back and allow France and Britain to dominate the mission. This, even as it supplied the bulk of the arms.

Some questions the book could have addressed include: Why did the rebels decide to script such a grisly death for Qaddafi — a patriarch clearly in his autumn? Was his overthrow the result of foreign conspiracy, considering that he had antagonised quite a lot of regimes due to his fiercely independent foreign policy? Was Libya really on the verge of genocide when the West decided to intervene?

A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), Making sense of Libya (released on 6th June 2011, much after the intervention began), provides some answers. It revealed that the revolt’s original authors were not native Libyans in Benghazi but those from the Libyan diaspora, vocal opponents of Qaddafi’s style of functioning who had been responsible for his vilification in the western media.

Hugh Roberts, ICG’s North Africa Project Director during the uprising, gave a comprehensive analysis in his article, Who said Gaddafi had to go? ( London Review of Books, November 17, 2011). The essay proves a sober counter to Chivvis’s celebratory monograph.

Roberts’s essay answers most of the questions Chivvis’s book doesn’t. In the Cold War years, Libya had been of strategic interest to the U.S. primarily because of its location along the coast of Mediterranean, providing it a vital link between Europe and North Africa and North Africa and West Asia. Up to the discovery of oil in 1960, the primary source of revenue for Libya was from the Wheelus Air Base, which was once called by a U.S. Ambassador as “a little America … on the sparkling shores of the Mediterranean.” Having once had about 4,600 Americans, it was rendered defunct once oil was discovered and a Qaddafi-led coup happened in 1969.

Roberts also deals with the minutiae when he points out that the conflict was more internecine than international — it was between the Arab villages and Berber hamlets; between militias from the mountains and those from the coast; and between the light-skinned Libyans and their black neighbours.

So, was Libya another Afghanistan where tribal identities triumphed over national ones? Or was it converted into an anarchy along Afghan lines post-intervention?

Dirk Vandewalle, in his book A history of modern Libya, expounds that just like many other countries in Africa, Libya was a creation of convenience for colonial powers. The United Kingdom of Libya was created in 1951 by integrating three distinct regions – Cyrenaica (east), Fezzan (southwest), and Tripolitania (west) — without a binding force.

Libyans had suffered vicious suppression at the hands of their Italian colonisers, who tried to create an extension of metropolitan Italy in Tripolitania, settling Italians while massacring natives. This only fostered tribal loyalties and created distrust toward political institutions.

Though Qaddafi’s interests lay in keeping Libya politically inactive, his government’s generous redistribution of oil revenues did create an effective welfare state. As per a UNICEF (2009) report, Libya had a literacy rate of 95 per cent for males and 78 per cent for females and a life expectancy of 74. It had a Human Development Index (HDI) ranking of 55, out of 182 countries considered, ahead of most sub-Saharan and many Asian countries.

It would be more persuasive to say that the Libyan civil war was a conflict created by history — between the culturally and economically disparate western and the eastern regions — best resolved politically by Libyans themselves, with diplomatic support from outside, which the ICG offered. However, NATO was more intent on scripting a change its way.

Chivvis is so absorbed in the details of NATO’s military manoeuvres that, even with the benefit of hindsight, he gets his facts entirely wrong. This becomes particularly bewildering in the final chapter, written when the negative repercussions of the intervention were being felt.

For instance, Chivvis still maintains that Qaddafi government killed “several hundred civilians” prior to the intervention. Hugh Roberts had invalidated this as early as 2011 by citing Human Rights Watch, which said that as late as on February 21, when the genocide bogey had reached its peak, the total death toll was 233. Compared to this, the total death toll in Tunisia was 300 and that in Egypt was 846.

Chivvis claims that the intervention offered hopes for protesters in the other conservative regimes in the region against brutal crackdown. This after the West chose to overlook protests in Bahrain — where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed — when the Sunni-minority monarchy crushed the non-violent Shia demonstrators.

Chivvis also makes the ludicrous claim that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would have suppressed his population earlier and more violently had NATO not intervened. He completely ignores the fact that it was NATO’s misadventure in Libya that strengthened al-Qaeda-linked elements in Syria. This in turn led to the birth of Islamic State (IS), an ultra-jihadist group that the U.S. is currently fighting in Iraq.

Chivvis occasionally engages in plainspeak. Like when he emphasises the positive fall-out of the intervention on the U.S. arms industry. Citing an unclassified document, he says that the U.S. went on to sell $261 million worth of ammunition and spare parts to its allies. This while ‘leading from behind!’

And, finally, he admits, in passing, the ambivalence the rebels gradually started to feel toward NATO’s intentions, when the latter started dictating the course of action. One of them even went on to question if NATO’s aims were ‘different’ to their own.

The ICG document proved to be prescient in its outlook when it said that with an escalation of hostilities, the outcome “... may be not a transition to democracy but rather a potentially prolonged vacuum … that could aggravate an already serious humanitarian crisis.”

About a year after Qaddafi’s death, another video, graphic in its details, emerged. It pertained to the death of Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, killed when its consulate in Benghazi, the birthplace of Libya’s uprising, was attacked. A fringe terrorist organisation strengthened by the intervention, ansar al-Sharia was blamed. From one grisly murder to another, Libya’s faux-revolution had come a full circle.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 4:17:13 PM |

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